Dear Artist,

The feeling of competence is the first evidence of professionalism — that lovely space that comes when we can look at a job well done and can say that it fulfills or exceeds what was first envisioned. Professionalism is where we take ourselves seriously and are more likely to be taken seriously by others. It’s not won overnight. Competence through professionalism is a form of labour, but for us it’s a labour of love. If you wish yourself well you must teach yourself the habits to bring it along. Here are a few of what I’ve found to be the elements of competence:

Workmanlike approach: A strange attitude to some — it’s boilerplate to others. A project might run like this: Assembly of reference material and ideas. Contemplation. Production of sketches. Contemplation. Preparation for the art event. Contemplation. Confident execution. Contemplation. Reparation. Final vetting. Delivery.

Respect for time: “Clock” is the secret device of many professionals. Time is not to be wasted or haphazardly dreamed into oblivion. Self-orchestrated deadlines are planned and met. Projects are neither under-timed nor are they dragged out. There’s the full and profound understanding that in the bigger picture the great life-project is ticking and ebbing.

Respect for space: The tools of the trade are ready and set to handedness and efficiency. Most everything is right to the artist’s own devising. The place and atmosphere is conducive to work — right down to your idiosyncratic and personal details — privacy, music, light, health, muse, etc.

There are of course other factors that lead to competence, and I’ll allude to these in future letters. Funnily, many of these seemingly minor ephemera are what makes our often frustrating profession a continual and unqualified joy.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” 1885-6
by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Best regards,


PS: “The artistic temperament is a disease which afflicts amateurs.” (G K Chesterton)





by Randy Hill

Just as Joe DiMaggio was competent at hitting home runs and runs batted in during the ’39 season, many bush league boys couldn’t get over 250, and so it is with artists. Some are more competent than others. Competence is more than just talent or a gift — it’s an application and dedication which in the case of artists may take a lifetime to develop. Like DiMaggio, it takes a strong desire to win and a diligent practice to get good.


Unforgiving stone
by Chris Rose, British Columbia, Canada

I found your comments on professionalism interesting but also somewhat disturbingly confining. When I have finished with a sculpture I never find myself with the feeling of ‘a job well done’ and certainly it never ‘exceeds what was first envisioned’. However, if I achieve an approximation of what I had envisioned at the start, I feel reasonably happy. I grant you that as an artist in different disciplines we may have different approaches, as a painter we can scrape off what we do not like and repaint and do this over and over again as long as the canvas will last, but if you are a sculptor the rock is unforgiving, once chopped away it can not be put back. I will keep on chopping!


by Chrystos Minot

I hope you are enjoying this effulgent, lush, and verdant springtime. Sometimes on hikes nowadays I can feel the trees’ pulse along with my own thumping heart. The geology, the hints of strata below, have never been more beautiful.

It seems so many of us homo sapiens are making radical and courageous changes in our lives these days. Love, friendships, spiritual practice, work, health, fitness are getting a fresh appraisal and approach. Out with the useless, the dead wood, and on with the new. Go for it!

P.S. “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” (Perhaps the same can be said for men.)


Beautiful time
by Tom McCann

What amazes me about time is how it slips away when I am at the easel. To me it is a dream-like state where small problems are presented one after the other and as they are solved the mind moves on to new problems. I consider this state to be really quite beautiful. I often ask myself how I got this way. Workers in many industries are watching the slow progress of the clock for hours of every day. My only concern is that time moves too fast when I am painting.


Without remorse
by T.J.

I do like to keep track of my time as I work. Using time well and carefully is a science, and when you say respect you’re right on. But I think there’s a proper time to be loose with time — letting the segments fly by without remorse when you’re into those golden periods where time stands still and the work itself takes over. These “timelessnesses, if that’s a word, are worth working for.


No minimum wage here
by Peter Paget

It amazes me is how little time it takes to do good work. I’m one of the artists who feel freshness is almost more important than anything else. Also by learning to be fast and loose within the time I have allotted to do the work I surprise myself by how much my actual hourly wage is.


Alteration state
by Mary Sue McGrath

As Faith Baldwin said, “Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.” I always think about this when I’m making afterthought alterations to an otherwise fairly decent work. If the time is there I’ll fill it up with alterations and that’s not good.


Time bandits
by David

My worst problem was dreaming my time away while I was supposed to be working. Anything would do: doodling especially (I called it sketching). I just went to work and conquered the habit although I still smoke and drink Coke and coffee while I work.


Asleep at the switch
by Carolyn Millard

“He who saddens at thought of idleness cannot be idle, / And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.” (John Keats)


Efficient space

I improved my efficiency by simply moving my palette to a shelf on my easel, directly under the painting. I have since realized that many artists use this configuration. Any time and motion expert would spot this one — but some artists are still using hand and side-table palettes.


Circadian rhythms
by Harold Mendel, California, USA

Plants and animals time their activities to a natural cycle based on light and darkness, etc. Humans also have circadian rhythms where food, sleep habits, sexual cycles and other factors influence efficiency, mental, physical, and creative activities. One of your previous writers mentioned taking advantage of the sanctuary of the night. The inner clock varies between human individuals. There are other factors based on sex, age and health, as well as energy levels. Artists should come to know and understand themselves and their relative stamina, persistance of judgement, and levels of care and craftsmanship in order to extract the best from themselves. “Know thyself.”


Time and motion
by J.K Field, UK

F.W. Taylor (d 1915) was an American engineer and efficiency expert who first studied the work habits and movements of men and machines. Each step in a factory process was clocked in order to find the best positioning of personnel and tools. This led to improvements in all fields where cost, time and quality were a factor. To my knowledge no studies have been done on self-employed artists although creative workers in such places as Waterford Glass in Eire and English Potteries have been looked at. Common sense tells the individual artist what he or she may do to improve efficiency while still maintaining traditional and enjoyable work habits.


The last word
by L.L.

I paint at all hours in a state of chaos and make over 300K per year and those ain’t kopecs.



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